GAO Contradicts Trump Admin on Forced BLM Move – Finds Interior Officials Failed to Follow Basic Practices, Resulting in Damaging Staff Attrition

Washington, D.C. – The Government Accountability Office (GAO) today released a highly anticipated report finding that the Trump administration’s attempt to move Washington, D.C.-based Bureau of Land Management (BLM) employees to Grand Junction, Colo., and elsewhere across the West failed to follow a number of widely accepted best practices for agency reform and has already resulted in a damaging level of staff attrition. Chair Raúl M. Grijalva (D-Ariz.) said the findings confirm widespread suspicions that staff attrition and the destruction of the agency’s ability to carry out its mission have been the administration’s goals all along.

The reportBureau of Land Management: Agency’s Reorganization Efforts Did Not Substantially Address Key Practices for Effective Reforms – is available at http://bit.ly/2IsnudH. Chair Grijalva requested the GAO review in November 2019 after BLM continually failed to answer Committee requests for documents and information regarding the reorganization, both in writing and in hearings before the Committee.

The GAO review compared the BLM move to best practices detailed in its separate report on federal agency reform efforts. GAO found that the BLM reorganization failed to fully meet all five key categories of a reorganization and could not demonstrate any meaningful efforts to involve employees and key stakeholders.

GAO found that as of January 23, of the 179 staff who received relocation notices, 81 either declined the reassignment or separated from their position. This is in line with internal DOI numbers recently obtained by The Hill, and significantly lower than the “two thirds” retention rate BLM Acting Director William Perry Pendley falsely claimed in an email to staff last year.

Among other findings, the report reveals that Trump administration officials have been publicly lying for months about their level of outreach and engagement with career staff:

According to documents we received from the Department, Interior held listening sessions with employees regarding [Interior Department]-wide reforms, but the documents did not indicate that the BLM relocation was a topic of discussion at these sessions. We requested additional information about the listening sessions or communications with employees other than the executive leadership team specifically regarding the BLM reorganization and whether this information was used to develop BLM’s plan. As of February 20, 2020, BLM had not provided us such information.

BLM provided examples of communications with staff, such as emails from the Deputy Director updating staff on the status of relocation memos or producing options for pursuing other positions at Interior or BLM for those that chose not to relocate. However, these communications took place after July 16, 2019, when BLM officially informed Congress of its reorganization plans. [emphasis in original]

On March 4, Assistant Secretary for Policy Management and Budget Susan Combs, one of the leaders in the relocation effort, gave the Committee misleading testimony on staff losses:

Rep. Anthony Brown (D-Md.):  So, assistant secretary, can you share with us how many staff have left the BLM as a result of this move?

Combs:  Congressman, I don’t have that information. I do know that there has been an extraordinarily concerted effort on behalf, uh, by the Bureau of Land Management to ensure that no persons lost their job.

The report concluded, “BLM has not substantially followed key practices for effective agency reforms relevant to relocating employees.”

The GAO findings come after months of reporting indicating that high-ranking Trump administration officials are using forced staff moves to destroy agency morale and push career civil servants out of their jobs. Trump’s acting Chief of Staff, Mick Mulvaney, bragged in August 2019 that by making federal employees’ lives miserable and urging them to quit, the Trump administration is doing “what we haven’t been able to do for a long time.”

“This administration has created an intentionally abusive and cruel relationship between the federal government and its employees,” Grijalva said today. “Anyone who wants our land management agencies to be functional in the future needs to recognize the seriousness of what Secretary Bernhardt, Acting Director Pendley, and their subordinates are doing. BLM has already lost dozens of key employees and the administration, like an incompetent con man, is desperately spinning it as a great opportunity to find new people. This administration cannot be trusted with the levers of power, and what it’s doing to BLM will be repeated again and again the longer this president remains in office.”

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